World Cup Qualifying: Italy stumble into playoffs again
Italy braced for yet another nightmare as they missed out on automatic qualification for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar with a goalless draw against Northern Ireland in Belfast.
The reigning European champions went into their final Group C qualifier determined for a win with a fine margin to pip Switzerland, sitting beneath them only on goal difference.
However, the Azzurri failed to break the stubborn Irish defense and had to satisfy with a 0-0 draw while the Swizz thumped Bulgaria 4-0 in Lucerne to cruise to the World Cup finals.
Northern Ireland, who never conceded a goal on home turf, made things difficult for the visitors, who needed a 3-0 margin victory from the beginning of the match.
Irish back five led by the experienced Jonny Evans were resolute, and goalkeeper Bailey Peacock-Farrell, made routine saves from Giovanni Di Lorenzo, Nicolo Barella, Federico Chiesa and Lorenzo Insigne to frustrate the blues.
Insigne failed to capitalise on Italy’s best chance from Tom Flanagan’s square pass when he cut inside Craig Cathcart, as Peacock-Farrell comfortably saved his weak shot.
On the other end, the home side that survived a scary first half made bright movements and counter-attacks after the break.
Conor Washington, who came off the bench, almost won it for the hosts to pull one of the greatest upsets on the night, but his effort was cleared off the line in the final minute of the game.
Italy’s resurrection as a World football power came under real test as they failed to progress to the World Cup in regular time.
They rued missed penalties and lack of sharpness and precision in their attacking power, which helped them win the European Championship.
Chelsea’s Ballon dÓre shortlisted Jorginho missed a penalty in their 1-1 draw with Switzerland last Friday in Rome, which proved too costly for the world number 4.
This is the second consecutive time that the Four times World Champions are forced to decide their destiny via play-offs for the second successive World Cup.
In one of the darkest episodes in Italian football history, the side managed by Gian Piero Ventura failed to secure automatic qualification for the 2018 World Cup held in Russia, losing to Sweden in a two-leg play-off which prompted an exodus of some of the most decorated players, including Gianluigi Buffon.
The Italians have an even bigger challenge to pile more pressure this time: they have to get through two one-leg matchups to advance in a newly devised play-off system.
The draw takes place on Nov. 26, and Italy will be at home for its first match with the advantage as a seeded team.
The play-offs will feature 10 group runners up and two best group winners from the 2020-21 UEFA Nations League, where only three will get a chance to play in Qatar.
Mancini Still confident to Qualify and win the World Cup
Roberto Mancini, who resurrected the Italian team after an apocalypse and led them to the Euro 2020 triumph and a world record unbeaten run of 37 matches, is still confident of turning things around in the play-offs.
“We will make it to the World Cup in March, and then maybe we will even win it. I am totally confident,” said the Azzurri boss in the post-match reaction.
“Despite dominating matches, we’re struggling to score goals at the moment. We needed to score early on tonight. It’s a pity because we should have finished things off sooner in this group.
“We need to rediscover what has set us apart until now and remain utterly calm until March.
“We should have won against Bulgaria and had two penalties against Switzerland. These are games that could have finished in our favour. I’m completely confident about the play-offs.”